The #ArtforAmnesty event at StudioBe, New Orleans, December 2015. Photo: Michael Skolnik

Editor’s Note: Hechinger Report columnist Andre Perry delivered the following remarks on Feb. 6 at Teach for America’s 25th Anniversary Summit.

WASHINGTON — The overwrought phrase “culture of violence” weaponizes our prejudices of black and brown folk only to target the very people who need saving.

The late, great civil rights leader Julian Bond once said, “Violence is black children going to school for 12 years and receiving six years’ worth of education.” I can’t think of a better quote to frame this Teach for America 25th Anniversary session: “#StayWoke: Stop the Violence, Increase the Opportunity.” Bond reminds us that bad public policy has stolen more years from young lives than gun violence ever will. Being “woke” means being aware of what is going on in your community. Staying woke on issues of violence requires a constant checking of a mindset of victim blaming.

The problem with our passion to end a culture of violence is that it comes from the same place as the appetite to indict black and brown people with charges of self-destruction. The tradition of blaming black folk keeps us from aiming at real sources of violence.

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If we were really interested in ending violence, we would be asking: Who pulled the trigger to underfund schools in Philadelphia? Who poisoned our brothers and sisters in Flint, Michigan? Who and what made New Orleans the incarceration capital of the world? More importantly, we would teach our students to raise these questions.

Let’s get woke to what violence really is.

Violence is suspending and kicking children out of school for uniform violations. Violence is having judges and police officers provide more muscle to your schools’ “discipline” policies than quality lesson plans and good instruction.

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Violence is having a school resource officer from Spring Valley High School flip a child out of a desk allegedly for improper cell phone use. Really, if teachers treated students like future colleagues, the assault at Spring Valley would have never happened.

To get to the source, we need to ask why our youth are responding to violence beyond the armchair retort, “It all starts at home.” Seriously, stop blaming parents for underachieving kids. And saying that “not all kids can go to college” is just a euphemism for black and brown kids aren’t smart enough. These insidious forms of violence demonstrate that root causes are ignored because black and brown worth is devalued.

Violence is when a presidential candidate can grossly proclaim that Mexicans are “bringing drugs,” and “crime” while branding our brown brothers as “rapists.” Violence is the warped logic of believing that all Latinos are immigrants when in fact everyone in the United States except for Native Americans got here through immigration. And not all of that immigration was voluntary. Remember the phrase, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”

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I live in New Orleans. I know what violence looks, smells and feels like. It’s being numb to thousands of families who’ve been underserved by public education before and after Hurricane Katrina. Violence was the categorical firing of 7,500 school employees after the storm. Violence is the unnecessary labeling of black boys as special needs while not providing services to children who actually need them.

The loose language of “black on black crime” is a symptom of a deeper social disease. High levels of mental health symptoms paired with exposure to violence have consequences. “Acting out” is a human response to the conditions youth face every day. There is nothing wrong with black people that ending racism can’t solve. So it’s not only the interpersonal trauma that needs to be treated. The mindset of blame must be booted if we are ever to get to root causes.

You have to get woke to stay woke.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).